HAVANA – A growing underground network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras and clandestine Internet hookups has been mounting some challenges to the Cuban government in recent months, spreading news the official state media try to suppress.
Last month, students at a prestigious computer science university videotaped an ugly confrontation they had with Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the National Assembly. Alarcon seemed flummoxed when students grilled him on why they could not travel abroad, stay at hotels, earn better wages or use search engines like Google. The video spread like wildfire through Havana, passed from person to person, and seriously damaged Alarcon’s reputation in some circles.
Something similar happened in late January when officials tried to impose a tax on the tips and wages of employees of foreign companies. Workers erupted in jeers and shouts when told about the new tax, a moment caught on a cell phone camera and passed along by memory sticks.
“It passes from flash drive to flash drive,” said Ariel, 33, a computer programmer, who, like almost everyone else interviewed for this article, asked that his last name not be used for fear of political persecution. “This is going to get out of the government’s hands because the technology is moving so rapidly.”
Cuban officials have long limited the public’s access to the Internet and digital videos, tearing down unauthorized satellite dishes and keeping down the number of Internet cafes open to Cubans. Only one Internet cafe remains open in Old Havana, down from three a few years ago.
Hidden in a small room in the depths of the Capitol building, the state-owned cafe charges a third of the average Cuban’s monthly salary — about $5 — to use a computer for an hour. The other two former Internet cafes in central Havana have been converted into “postal services” that let Cubans send e-mail messages over a closed network on the island with no links to the Internet. “It’s a sort of telegraph service,” said one young man, shrugging as he waited in line to use the computers at a former Internet cafe on O’Reilly Street.
Yet the government’s attempts to control access are increasingly ineffective. Young people here say there is a thriving black market giving thousands of people an underground connection to the world outside the Communist country.
People who have smuggled in satellite dishes provide illegal connections to the Internet for a fee or download movies to sell on discs. Others exploit the connections to the Web of foreign businesses and state-run enterprises. Employees with the ability to connect to the Internet often sell their passwords and identification numbers for use in the middle of the night.
Hotels catering to tourists provide Internet services, and Cubans also exploit those conduits to the Web.
Even the country’s top computer science school, the University of Information Sciences, set in a campus once used by Cuba’s spy services, has become a hotbed of cyber-rebels. Students download everything from the latest American television shows to articles and videos criticizing the government, and pass them quickly around the island.
“There is a whole underground market of this stuff,” Ariel said.
The video of Alarcon’s clash with students was leaked to the BBC and CNN, giving the world a rare glimpse of the discontent among the young with the system. His answers to the questions seemed evasive. Asked about the ban on travel, Alarcon suggested that if everyone who wished to were allowed to travel, there would not be enough airspace for the planes.
Some young journalists have also started blogs and Internet news sites, using servers in other countries, and their reports are reaching people through the digital underground.
Yoani Sanchez, 32, and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, 60, established Consenso desde Cuba, a Web site based in Germany. Sanchez has attracted a considerable following with her blog, called Generacion Y, in which she has artfully written gentle critiques of the government by describing her daily life in Cuba. Sanchez and her husband said they believed strongly in using their names with articles despite the possible political repercussions.
Shortly before Raul Castro was elected president last week to replace his ailing brother Fidel, Sanchez wrote a piece describing what sort of president she wanted. She said the country did not need a soldier, a charismatic leader or a great speaker, but “a pragmatic housewife” who favored freedom of speech and open elections.
Writing later about Raul Castro’s first speech as president, she criticized his vague promises of change, saying they were as clear as the Rosetta Stone was when it was first found. Both essays would be impossible to publish in Cuba.
“The Internet has become the only terrain that is not regulated,” she said in an interview.